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The Official Charts: Britain's longest-running Number One

As the Official Charts celebrate their 70th anniversary, we look at how important the weekly rundowns are for songwriters and artists seven decades on.

Mark Sutherland
  • By Mark Sutherland
  • 25 Nov 2022
  • min read

‘Who’s Number One in the charts?’ 

For 70 years, that question has echoed around the nation, ever since NME founder Percy Dickins, looking for a way to boost magazine sales, decided to start a chart for the vinyl singles flying out of record shops.The Official UK Singles Chart was born and, from there on in, the then-cosy world of music sales became increasingly competitive as artists, songwriters, record labels and fans all became obsessed with who would emerge as that week’s chart-topper. 

The chart has held a unique place in British society ever since. Nowhere near as much attention is paid to (nor as much criticism directed at) the TV ratings or the cinema box office figures, but then the singles chart has chronicled musical movements from rock’n’roll to grime and sparked bitter battles from the Sex Pistols versus Rod Stewart to Blur versus Oasis. 

The traditional Sunday afternoon chart rundown on BBC Radio 1 and the weekly broadcast of Top Of The Pops became unmissable appointments for huge swathes of the population, meaning that even your Granny usually knew who held the coveted position of Britain’s Number One. And, at Christmas, when the race to the top was particularly cut-throat and casual record buyers got involved, she probably even played a key role in deciding who got there.  

But, in 2022, the world is a very different place. People now stream their favourite songs rather than buying them in shops. Top Of The Pops has long gone, even if Radio 1’s broadcast of the new chart (now on Friday afternoons) still attracts a large audience every week. The Christmas Number One battle is a mere sideshow. And there’s more chance of the average person in the street knowing who’s chancellor of the exchequer this week than who’s topping the charts. 

'If you go through the chart decade-by-decade, it’s amazing how it tracks the changing textures of music and how it’s evolved over that time.'

Yet, despite a plethora of rival charts and the fragmentation of the media, Martin Talbot, CEO of the Official Charts Company, insists that the Top 40 is still the place to be. 

'If you go through the chart decade-by-decade, it’s amazing how it tracks the changing textures of music and how it’s evolved over that time,’ he says. ‘For artists, getting to Number One is a real achievement. Very rarely do they get the opportunity to compare and rank themselves against their peers. That’s why it means so much to them.’ 

Nowadays, every artist that scores a Number One hit receives a special trophy from the OCC – leading to a weekly photo gallery of delight across social media, from the biggest names in pop to those just getting a first taste of fame. Take DJ Eliza Rose, for example, who recently hit Number One with B.O.T.A. (Baddest Of Them All).  

‘If you’d have told me I’d have a Top 10 single 10 years ago, I would have said, “You’re having a laugh, darlin,” she said when the song first became a hit. ‘That’s why it feels surreal.’

But there is also an emerging class of artist that seems to have no real need for chart success. Bru-C’s Mesmerised single was recently BRIT-certified Silver without ever gracing the Top 75; while Tame Impala’s Let It Happen has gone gold without a sniff of chart action. Catfish and the Bottlemen have three platinum singles that have never charted. 

And then there’s an artist like Nina Nesbitt. The Scottish singer-songwriter is doing very nicely thank you, with over one billion global streams across her catalogue. She did have several chart singles early in her career (the biggest, Stay Out, peaked at No.21 in 2013, only denied a Top 20 placing by the death of Margaret Thatcher, which sent Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead hurtling to Number One – the sort of unique British twist that has scuppered many a dream of chart glory). But her biggest recent songs such as The Best You Had (over 116m streams on Spotify alone) and Loyal To Me (almost 4m views on YouTube) never scaled even the chart’s lower reaches.  

'Streaming has created a lot of niches. You can be successful now without being in the charts.’ 

‘I grew up on chart music so getting my first Top 40 was really exciting,’ says Nesbitt. ‘But nowadays I couldn’t even tell you what’s in the Top 10. Streaming has created a lot of niches. You can be successful now without being in the charts.’ 

Instead, Nesbitt says she measures her accomplishments by the amount of streams she’s received – with her global fanbase, plays are spread around the world rather than concentrated in one territory – and reaction on social media and at gigs (she’s just completed a rapturously received UK tour). 

‘Being in the charts is not part of our plan, it’s more just, ‘Keep it growing’,’ she says. ‘Nowadays, things can blow up on TikTok a year later so there’s not that horrible pressure for week one [sales] anymore, it’s more about just keeping the streams coming in. You find what works for you.’

Nesbitt has had three Top 40 entries on the Albums Chart, which Martin Talbot notes has a much higher public profile these days. The OCC boss also points out that now that the singles chart primarily measures consumption rather than purchases, only truly popular songs make the cut. 

'It takes at least 1.5m streams each week to get into the Top 40. It’s always been difficult to make the chart; that’s why people want to get into it.’

‘There have always been artists that we would consider successful but actually never had a chart career,’ says Talbot. ‘Streaming has confused things a little; there are lots of artists who think they’re very successful because they’ve got 100,000 streams. But it takes at least 1.5m streams each week to get into the Top 40. It’s always been difficult to make the chart; that’s why people want to get into it.’

Certainly, it’s harder than ever for new artists to break through, which may be producing a generation of musicians who are less hung up on chart success, even if it’s still the primary metric by which the music industry ranks itself. Indeed, the OCC has tweaked its rules over the years to try and level the playing field – artists can now only have a maximum of three songs on the chart, while the ‘accelerated decline’ methodology is designed to ensure a decent turnover of songs at the top of the listings and keep the flood of catalogue perennials at bay.

That’s not been enough to keep some chart watchers happy, but when it comes to the criticism, Martin Talbot is a non-mover.

‘We live in a very different time,’ he says. ‘We don’t have Top Of The Pops to pipe the chart into people’s homes like in the ‘70s or ‘80s, but we have Twitter, TikTok and Facebook. There are a lot of middle-aged men who say the chart was much better in their day, but that’s because it was targeted at them in their day, and it’s not targeted at them now.’

With an engaged Gen Z audience, Talbot is confident the singles chart will still be with us in another seven decades’ time. Nina Nesbitt agrees but says ‘the weight it holds might change’.

‘I’m sure a hit [single] would open doors for me,’ she says, noting chart success can influence everything from radio play to festival bookings. ‘But it’s hard, because you don’t want to sacrifice your creative vision just to have a hit.

‘The most important thing is building a fanbase,’ she concludes. ‘And I don’t think my fans really care about chart success. You have to look after all the different avenues, whether it’s streaming, live, social media, charting… If you get them all it’s great but, if not, you can focus on the ones that work. There are so many different variables to what success is these days.’

So, will the Official Singles Chart hang on as Britain’s longest-running Number One? We may have to wait another 70 years to find out…